“Love is Nothing . . .” from John 13:31-35
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, April 28, 2013 The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Fr. J. Queremais, Fr. J. Pierre, Fr. J. M. N. Biler, Fr. L. Gergaud, Fr. F. LeVezouet, and two Daughters of the Cross nuns. These are names listed on a memorial placard at the entrance of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in downtown Shreveport, a list of a few people who chose to stay here during the days of the Yellow Fever to care for the sick. Any conversation about that epidemic inevitably contains references to the sacrificial act of these ordinary people; these followers of Jesus who understood their calling from God to love others, even unto death.
It’s that kind of behavior that Jesus is telling the disciples about here in our Gospel text for this morning. It is the same text we heard on Maundy Thursday, with Jesus giving the disciples a new commandment to follow; to love each other. It is frightening how many parallels there are today with the societal, cultural, and religious context of Jesus when he spoke these words. Religions were a dime a dozen and each one coming along with it’s own messiah of sorts. People were skeptical of new teachers and their promises for a better life. Even within Judaism, there were many leaders who had emerged with promises they couldn’t deliver. And, certainly, people were fully aware that even the best of their group had obvious problems with hypocrisy and scandal. People then, as now, weren’t seeing that these new groups were really any different than they were.
Jesus, though, was a completely different kind of religious leader. People who encountered him could readily see that there was something different about him; something that made him stand out in the crowd of messiah’s. He taught with amazing insight and authority, but also lived out what he taught. Taking a slice of stories in the Gospels reveals what stood out the most: love. Jesus spoke about love, taught about love, celebrated love, and, most of all, demonstrated love. He was the same person walking down the street that he was teaching in the synagogue. He was the same person preaching to thousands on the sermon on the mount that he was alone in the desert. One thing he consistently characterized was love for others. This was the love he called them to give away.
An interview of people Jesus encountered in his ministry would no doubt touch on several apparent characteristics of his love for them and others. First, people would note how unconditional it was. From the men Jesus approached and then called out of their ordinary lives to the thief hanging on a neighboring cross, Jesus showed unconditional love. There were just no strings attached. It didn’t matter to Jesus if you were a traitorous tax collector, a notorious lady of the evening, a pompous Pharisee, an unapproachable leper, a fair weather follower, or a whimsical governor. No matter who you were or what you had done, Jesus loved you. And you knew it.
Jesus also loved sacrificially. Any doubts we have about this kind of love are countered by the cross. It is impossible to think of the cross of Jesus apart from the awareness of the sacrifice it involved. Just like us, Jesus was raised in a culture where the fittest survived; those who were able and knew how to get what they needed and wanted, even if it meant stepping on someone else to get it. Resources were scarce and having them usually meant the difference between life and death. Even among the well-to-do and well-resourced, there was plenty of self-service. People like Zachaeus and Matthew, amassing enormous wealth off the taxes of their neighbors, are good examples of that. Others like the people Jesus described in stories like the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant show the antithesis of sacrificial living. Not so with Jesus, though. We can’t help but find him taking time to restore someone’s sight, to deny himself food that he might multiply loaves and fishes for others, taking up the basin and towel to wash his disciple’s feet, and rushing around to provide his power of healing on a friend’s brother and mother. His life ended (for a few days anyway) with the most powerful pronouncement of sacrifice. This was love, the kind his followers were to witness and show.
“Show” may be the stronger word here, for what is love if it is not shown? Jesus knew that the world would not know about this kind of love unless his followers showed it. For whatever reason, that’s just how God’s plan was to go. He loved the world. He sent his Son to show the world his love. His son loved the world with His love. The people who experienced God’s love from Jesus were to share it with world around them. And on and on it would go. It was always about visibility. God’s love could not be anything but visible.
That said, it seems that Jesus spent a lot of time correcting people who were pretty good at hiding it. Many of them were smothering it out with their indifference and sin, keeping themselves and others around them in darkness. True light, however, would not smother but eventually shine through it all. Perhaps you have heard what Gandhi said about Christians, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” What an indictment for loveless Christians. What a challenge to us today, who name ourselves after our Christ, yet can be so unlikeable to the world around us because we don’t love like Jesus.
As we look at our own lives this morning, do we see the same characteristics of love Jesus demonstrated to others? Is your love for other people unconditional? I like what Catholic activist Dorothy Day said about such love, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Who are the least around you in your life and how much do you love them? Even with people we love the most we often provide only a conditional love. We say to them, “I love you if . . .” rather than a Jesus kind of “I love you . . . period” We seem to have no trouble loving the people who have beliefs just like ours, who attend a church just like ours, whose kids act just like ours, who drive cars just like ours, who vote just like us, who marry people just like us, and who live in a country just like ours. But what about those who aren’t and who don’t? Do we love them just the same? Jesus did and does.
May we also examine our love for sacrifice. If we say we really follow Jesus these days, then we will love one another. If we really love one another, then we will do so sacrificially. How much are you and I willing to give up as we love one another? What is it that we hold back and onto as we love the people in our homes, our schools, our friendships, our workplaces, cities, nation and world? Jesus never held back anything in any of these areas, nor should we. What does it look like for you to love sacrificially in these ways as you begin a new week?
However such love ends up looking for you, may it, like that of Jesus, be characterized by it’s visibility. The love Jesus has shown you is a light so bright that it must not be extinguished or smothered. Now you or I may cover it up at times. We may turn down the wick or stay out of darkness (where it belongs), but if it is real love, it will not stay hidden. Perhaps the only way to ever smother it is by people who never truly had it to begin with. They never allowed themselves to be consumed by it and become a beacon for other’s to see and follow. For those who have, Jesus has said, “this is how they will know.” Your love is nothing if it is not visible.
Not long before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church:
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize; that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards; that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.” (Source of quote)
What will be said of you, about the sum of your life? May it be said that you tried to love somebody–unconditionally, sacrificially, visibly. Like Jesus.